Cliffism: reopening the age of interpretation



The historian of the future, when tracing the origins of the SWP crisis of 2013, might do worse than begin, far from the scene of the final battle, with the reception accorded to Neil Davidson’s book on Bourgeois Revolutions. When Neil spoke at a one-day conference of the International Socialism Journal in September 2012, he was followed by Alex Callinicos, who responded to Neil’s gentle remarks by saying in the fashion which has become so familiar, “I don’t really agree with what Neil said”. Callinicos then went on to recapitulate first Trotsky and then Cliff’s theories of permanent and deflected permanent revolution, as if by merely stating them and their differences from Neil’s, he was proving Neil’s error. He concluded with the words, “What Neil said was so provocative that it couldn’t simply be ignored”.

The discussion was operating at a certain level of code but long-term members of the SWP could hardly have been unaware that Callinicos was accusing Davidson of apostasy and inviting his listeners to treat Davidson thereafter as a Marxist in error, a category for which the appropriate treatment, as it would be a child at school with a disease, is isolation from the rest of the group who must be kept safe from infection.

Yet anyone who had actually read Neil’s book would have known how generous he is in placing at the heart of his theory of bourgeois revolution the early postwar theories of Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron about state capitalism and about the defeat of the colonial revolutions. By re-interpreting the Algerian, Kenyan, Egyptian and Cuban revolutions as the last bourgeois revolutions, Neil made Cliff’s short observations at to the failure of Nasser etc to introduce full Communism central to his own project of rethinking historical materialis,.

Neil’s project was about affirming Cliff’s truths through understanding and applying them; in contrast to Callinicos, who was seeking to make them timeless, fixed, incapable of analysis, “true” only in the way that that a believer must treat decades-old Papal decrees as Infallible.

That was a year ago, there have been many other intellectual police-actions since.

At the end of the SWP’s December conference, it is tolerably clear, delegates will be offered two conceptions of how the SWP might be in the future.

In one conception, the age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979. New members, on joining the party should be expected to acquire, i.e. learn by rote, the important elements of the IS intellectual tradition; state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, permanent arms economy, the downturn, organisational “Leninism”. The ideas, they will be told, are fixed and correct and can equip any new activist for any practical difficulties they face. The party is a transmission belt for the ideas of a dead generation; the job of new members is to justify their adoption of Leninism to their parents and family, who (it can safely be assumed) will be opposed towards their decision to join. The member protects the group, and the group the member – in both cases from a world which is hostile to them.

A sceptical observer might object that some of the ideas I’ve listed (the first three of them) were intended to explain an age which has now definitively ended – the 1984-universe of big-power blocks and centralised state planning. The fourth was only ever an attempt to explain why, after the demise of the first three processes, the workers were not (yet) winning. And the party consensus is that the downturn is over. If Orwell’s novel seems dated now, why should we defer to Cliff, whose ideas were intended to explain the same epoch?

The young sceptic’s more sceptical teacher (Comrade Loyalist) will explain that it does not matter how long ago the Soviet Union ended. The gap between theory and practice can be cured, on the Loyalist’s urging, by intense periods of frantic activity, by giving away newspapers to people who sign petitions (but please do not ask them to go to any of our meetings), by distributing leaflets which someone else has designed, by recruiting students at one of our two SWSS groups (small numbers are apparently now our “strategy”), and persuading recruits of the truth of ideas that reached their fixed form many years ago.

Yet while Callinicos might today seem the counterpart in politics of George Eliot’s Casaubon, even now he can say to his credit – “well, in my philosophy, the world stopped in 1979. Compared to many others on the left, I am the very model of the modern Marxist theorist.”

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Within Left Unity there are other groups who also desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall. But the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities), and merely wishing that defeat away will not make it un-happen.

You might prefer to begin with those who saw 1917 or 1936 as breakthroughs. Even now, some British Trotskyists want history to end in 1938 with the Transitional Programme, with capitalism incapable of further expansion, and with a mass workers’ movement whose spare young activists can be enrolled in the tens-of-thousands strong legions of anti-fascist workers’ battalions. Wishing the ranks were full won’t make it happen.

The ideas of one dead political economist may of course preferable to another; Marx is a better place to begin than Smith or even Keynes, and Marx is not diminished if you add to him Luxemburg and Bukharin, Lenin and Trotsky. But even if your list goes on and on and reaches beyond Mandel even to Cliff, the difficulty remains. The difficulties of the present are our own, and we have to find new strategies to overcome them.

There is therefore a second conception of the relationship between theory and practice which is struggling to break through. This is of a party which would be Cliffite but in subtler ways. It would learn from the first generation of International Socialists modest perspectives and their good humour, from their willingness to turn quickly in the direction of struggle once it is seen to be happening, and from their ability to admit the obvious when struggle was low.

It would share with Kidron, Cliff, Hallas, and many others of their generation a belief in the revolutionary potential of workers, through their struggles and the mutual solidarity without which any authentically working-class protest is doomed, to change the world.

It would see in the story of Cliff himself, the original anti-Zionist Palestinian Jew, an opposition worth repeating to racism and oppression in all its forms.

It would learn from a more recent case of grotesque, institutional injustice the need to be deeply, rather than casually, supportive of women’s liberation.

It would be a party of the young and the engaged, and it would be youthful and questioning in its approach to theory

Such a party would wear its Cliffism in Regular not in Extra Large; in just the same way that the first generation of International Socialists refused to call themselves “Trotskyists”, not because he had been wrong about Stalin or Hitler, but because the mere repetition of formulas is an obstacle to the sort of activist re-thinking we need.

The immediate omission of course is a serviceable theory of Neo-Liberalism; one which connects as the Manifesto once did the emergence of the working class to capitalism’s defeat (even if Marx’s notion of an “immediately following” workers revolution as soon as the capitalists had defeated the feudal lords now seems a little optimistic). Or as Kidron’s Arms Economy once did, in locating the independent-minded shop stewards of the 1960s and the unofficial strikes on the shop-floor as the best antidote to the world of Doctor Strangelove.

Getting to a better place will involve some reading (just as Kidron had to borrow from the exotic corners of American Trotskyism), and a genuine sharing of ideas. As is only possible between members of collective, who share their time and their ideas fruitfully.

In light of our recent history, we will also need to reimmerse ourselves in revolutionary feminism – not just in theory, but in activity, without which all theory is grey.

It was Tony Cliff who used to say that, of course, and before him Rosa Luxemburg.

Maybe if we learned to depend a little less on Cliff himself and did better at using him, we would get closer to the politics that he tried to teach us.

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